Social policy, Arts, culture & society | Australia

4 August 2016

With the highest suicide rate in more than 50 years, and Indigenous Australians more than two and a half times more likely to take their own life, urgent action is required, writes Gerry Georgatos.

The Australian suicide toll is increasing towards the peak rate last experienced by the nation in 1963. Our Government must translate this pressing crisis into a national priority for action.

When we disaggregate the total national suicide toll through a racial lens we find that for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders the crisis has reached unprecedented levels, surpassing the high rates of suicide at the end of last century. According to official data, the suicide rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples was 2.6 times the rate for non-Indigenous Australians.

Officially, one in 19 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths is registered as a suicide – 5.2 per cent of all deaths accounted for by suicide. This is a staggering and harrowing statistic but the grim reality is much worse. There are under-reporting issues and coronial determinations which suggest a more accurate figure is that suicides account for 10 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths, one in 10 – a catastrophic humanitarian crisis.

Suicide is the tragic tip of an iceberg of intertwined, multifactorial issues that have led to acute socioeconomic disadvantage for a quarter of the nation’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population, while half of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population live below the Henderson Poverty Line. For every suicide there is a score of attempted suicides and thousands living in a constancy of high-end depression and various traumas, with a significant proportion of those degenerating into aggressive complex traumas.

One in nine Aboriginal and Torres Islanders alive today has been to prison. One in six of Western Australia’s and the Northern Territory’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders has been to prison. Nearly 90 per cent of the prison population has not completed Year 12, with more than 30 per cent failing to get past Year 9. Former inmates are stranded after their release and are up to ten times more likely to die unnaturally in the first year post-release than while in prison.

At the very least, prison should be a transformative experience – if not restorative. In general, inmates leave prison in a worse state compared to when they entered. The situational trauma of incarceration is compounded by multiple and composite traumas, particularly borne by a daily grind in the sense of hopelessness.

We need a policy focus on healing and wellbeing programs for inmates that reflects their right to redemption and capacity strengthening. There is nothing as profoundly powerful as forgiveness. The forgiving of others validates self-worth, builds bridges, a positive self and positive futures. Forgiveness cultivated and understood keeps families and society solid as opposed to the corrosive anger that diminishes people into the darkest places and to the mentally unwell. Policy-making should ensure educational and employment opportunities offering subsequent healing pathways. The mantras of self-responsibility should not preface any valid response, as people inherently need people and we must deliver policies wrapped in this psychosocially validating tenet.

More on this: Violating the rights of the child | Sharon Bessell

Calling for a royal commission into the suicide crisis is an attempt to galvanise political will for long overdue reform to address the many issues and disparities that culminate in abominable rates of suicide, incarceration and ruination. Political reform is imperative in redressing acute socioeconomic disadvantage, particularly in remote communities and regional towns. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities continue to be neglected and denied an equivalency of social infrastructure that non-Aboriginal towns and communities enjoy. To those communities, this translates as racism.

Within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population there are elevated risk groups that we are yet to adequately understand. Demographically, the Kimberley’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population has the nation’s highest suicide rate – seven times the national rate – and one of the highest in the world. However, if we disaggregate further to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who were removed from their biological families we find the nation’s highest suicide risk group, possibly up to three or four times the suicide rate in the Kimberley. Not far behind, as one of the nation’s highest elevated risk groups, are former inmates. Other elevated risk groups include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who are homeless and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who are LGBQTI.

This shows why we need policy-making to be developed around tailor-made responses and education. If we fail to do this we not only leave people behind, we discriminate, and this translates toxically with pronounced negative psychosocial impacts. Understanding difference and unfairness is a first step in suicide prevention.

The suicide prevention space is still raw and immature. A royal commission would enable progress and guide work that needs to be achieved in understanding the extent of the suicide crisis in Australia. There is a lot of ground to cover in formulating the various ways forward. Despite good programs and services and strong research into suicide prevention, it still remains a space polluted by far too many actors with little idea of what they are doing. A royal commission can assist in remedying this by validating what works and providing a template of measurable standards.

Without a royal commission the horrific rates of suicide, jailing and dysfunctional lives will continue, as will the disparity in suicide rates between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous populations. We cannot continue to live in the silences and internalise this tragedy.

I have travelled to hundreds of homeland communities and the families who are losing their loved ones are crying out to be heard; in fact they are screaming. It is a myth and predominately a wider community perception that there is a silence, shame and taboo in talking about suicide – it’s the listening that is not happening.


Lifeline’s 24-hour hotline, 13 11 14 Crisis Support and Suicide Prevention

Beyond Blue – 1300 22 4636


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Georgatos, Gerry. 2016. "Indigenous Suicide Epidemic Must End - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.